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Pawlenty ends the mystery: He's running for governor

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Tim Pawlenty speaks to reporters after a speech
Former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks to reporters after a speech inside of Edina Country Club in Edina, Minn. on Friday, March 16, 2018
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 5:43 p.m. | Posted 2:58 p.m.

Tim Pawlenty is running for a third term as Minnesota governor, returning to the fray after an eight-year hiatus and needing first to win the embrace of a new-look Republican Party.

Using a video announcement on Thursday to declare his candidacy, Pawlenty vowed to "restore common sense to Minnesota government with an open mind and big ideas."

He cited "skyrocketing health care costs, the cost of college, and just trying to afford a decent life are overwhelming too many" as concerns he would take on and said he could overcome the current "toxic politics" and bring people together.

The decision to run comes months after Pawlenty said he was done with politics.

"I'm politically retired," Pawlenty, 57, told reporters last fall after he gave one in a series of speeches on societal transformation that often sounded like a stump speech. "I'm not participating in the campaign so my status as a politician is retired."

But it was clear he had been moving toward a campaign for months, shedding a lucrative job leading a big bank lobbying organization in Washington.

Pawlenty assembled aides who helped him to statewide wins in 2002 and 2006, and he began soliciting money from a deep network of donors.

"I think he brings immediate credibility to the governor's race," said former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a key ally of Pawlenty's for years who also served in his cabinet.

The race Pawlenty enters is wide open, with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton leaving after two terms. While Republicans are hoping to turn the election into a referendum on Dayton's tenure, Pawlenty is the closest thing to an incumbent in the field, carrying a lengthy record for him to promote and opponents to pick apart.

After leaving the governor's mansion, Pawlenty briefly ran for president and was considered for a spot on eventual 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's ticket.

Pawlenty joined various corporate boards, and pulled down millions of dollars as chief executive of the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade association for the financial sector in Washington.

His return to Minnesota politics comes as President Donald Trump has put his stamp on the Republican Party. It creates an immediate challenge for Pawlenty, who had tried to distance himself from candidate Trump while vouching for the president's policies.

"It is a harsher, harder scene right now, for whatever reason. It is more extreme on both ends," Sviggum said. "Tim needs to prepare himself for the fact that not everybody will love him and not everybody even on the Republican side will love him."

Pawlenty's first task is to secure the Republican Party nod. Other contenders led by Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson have campaigned since last year for support among the probable GOP delegates to a June state convention.

It's possible that Pawlenty will essentially skip ahead to an August primary where the nomination will be decided.

The other Republicans with an outside path are former Minnesota Republican Party chair Keith Downey, Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and Naval reservist Phillip Parrish.

Giuliani Stephens said she doesn't believe there's much excitement among GOP delegates about Pawlenty getting in the race.

"I think politics have changed, and I think Minnesotans are looking for a different governor," she said. "I think they're looking for a different voice, fresh face, someone with new solutions and bold leadership."

Downey welcomed Pawlenty to the race.

"The constant anguishing over whether he was going to get in the race or not is over," he said. "We can get out in front of the people of Minnesota as well as a group of candidates and get our message out, which will be important." 

Johnson, who's making his second gubernatorial bid, said he would be a stronger general election candidate than Pawlenty.

"The general will be referendum on him and his eight years as governor and his time as a lobbyist in D.C. and his position on Donald Trump and all these other things," he said. "I don't think we can get there as Republicans if we're divided and the election is about the past."

The Democratic contest is down to three: U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and state Rep. Erin Murphy, who like Pawlenty is a former House majority leader.

Murphy said Pawlenty's entry allows DFLers like her to draw clear distinctions.

"I am a really good contrast to someone named Tim from Washington," Murphy said.

She reflected on one showdown she was involved with during the Pawlenty years over health care coverage for low-income Minnesotans. As governor, Pawlenty tried repeatedly to scrap the General Assistance Medical Care but it survived in the end after modifications.

"I'm the only candidate in this field who has actually stood up to Tim Pawlenty and prevailed in a fight head to head with him. I've served with him. I know what he did to the state's budget. I know what he did to the state's economy."

Pawlenty's stewardship of Minnesota over two terms will be a central theme of the campaign. And the message voters will hear will depend entirely on the messenger.

DFLers plan to point to recurring deficits, delayed payments to schools and cuts to college aid.

Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin took an early shot. 

"Minnesota needs a governor who will fight for everyday families. That's not Tim Pawlenty," Martin said in a statement. "As governor, he deprived thousands of Minnesotans of affordable health care. He jeopardized our children's education. He devastated our budget, and left roads and bridges across the state to crumble."

The Republican Governors Association applauded Pawlenty's decision, saying it "strengthens chances for GOP victory and immediately puts the race in the toss-up column."

Pawlenty and his allies are expected to argue he took firm stands against government spending growth.

"I'm the first true, fiscally conservative governor who has served here in the modern history of the state," Pawlenty said in an exit interview prior to leaving office after 2010. "So, it's a different approach. When you start talking about changing the financial direction of an organization this large and pushing against a culture this deep, we drew some lines in the sand and battled hard."

Pawlenty said then that he wanted his eight years to be "known as the time that Minnesota finally came to terms with its excesses and got itself on a more sustainable and responsible path."

Political entities on both sides are prepared to spend millions to drive home their Pawlenty narrative with voters.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.